In a word intended to reassure conservatives, Pope Francis told the bishops gathered in the Vatican Synod on the family Tuesday that Church teaching on marriage is “still valid,” while also urging them to broaden their horizons, instead of focusing on internal questions such as Communion for the divorced and remarried.
In his brief address, Francis said that “Catholic doctrine on marriage had not been touched or called into question” during the last Synod and retained all its validity.
He also called on the Synod fathers not to get stuck on “one single subject,” referring to the question of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, but rather to take into account the wide range of issues facing families today.
Recent media attention has focused overwhelmingly on two issues that are relatively tangential to the purpose of the Synod: same-sex marriage and holy Communion for Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that if a divorced Catholic remarries, even if it is recognized by civil law, “the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery” and, though not separated from the Church, “cannot receive Eucharistic communion.”
A small group of progressives, led by German Cardinal Walter Kasper, has been promoting a reexamination of this teaching. In a recent interview, the Cardinal suggested that Jesus’ teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is not valid in the 21st century.
The issue of gay marriage is not on the Synod’s agenda at all because it stands in clear opposition to the Christian understanding of the human person and of marriage itself, but this has not kept the media from discussing the question as if it were a major concern for the prelates’ meeting in Synod.
Attention on the more central points of the Synod was momentarily sidelined when a Polish priest working in the Vatican “came out” as gay the day before the Synod began, presenting his Catalonian boyfriend in a press conference and issuing a series of demands. He announced that he would be leaving the priesthood but “demanded” that the Church change its teaching regarding same-sex marriage and the morality of gay sex.
It was later revealed that his loud coming-out media blitz was carefully orchestrated to maximize publicity for his forthcoming book.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Péter Erdő, the chairman of the Synod, tried to regain focus by reminding the Synod fathers of how Catholics understand the indissolubility of marriage, noting that the Communion ban for divorced and remarried Catholics is not an “arbitrary prohibition,” but “intrinsic” to the nature of marriage as a permanent union. Mercy, he said, also “demands conversion.”
Erdő denounced both abortion and euthanasia in his speech, insisting on the “inviolable character of human life,” as well as the “right of natural death.” He also came out strongly in defense of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s controversial 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Church’s traditional opposition to birth control.
“This truth seems to have a special relevance today when there are so many technical possibilities for separating procreation from conjugal love,” he said.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.